Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
What you will find here is a trespasser’s reconnaissance report. Let me explain. I was asked to give two Tanner Lectures at Harvard in 2011. The request was flattering, but having just finished an arduous book, I was enjoying a welcome spell of “free reading” with no particular aim in mind. What could I possibly do in four months that might be interesting? Casting about for a manageable theme, I thought about the two opening lectures I had been in the habit of giving to a graduate course on agrarian societies for the past two decades. They covered the history of domestications and the agrarian structure of the earliest states. Although they had gradually evolved, I was aware that they were woefully out of date. Perhaps, I reasoned, I could hurl myself at the more recent work on domestication and the earliest states and at least write two lectures that would reflect newer scholarship and be more worthy of my discerning students.
Was I ever in for a surprise! The preparation for the lecture upset a great deal of what I thought I knew and exposed me to a host of new debates and findings that I realized I would have to put under my belt to do justice to the topic. The actual lectures, therefore, served more to register my astonishment at the amount of received wisdom that had to be thoroughly reexamined than to attempt that reexamination itself. Homi Bhabha, my host, selected three astute commentators—Arthur Kleinman, Partha Chatterjee, and Veena Das—who, in a seminar following the lectures, convinced me that my arguments were not remotely ready for prime time. Only five years later did I emerge with a draft that I thought was well founded and provocative.
This book thus reflects my effort to dig deeper. It is still very much the work of an amateur. Though I am a card-carrying political scientist and an anthropologist and environmentalist by courtesy, this endeavor has required working at the junction of prehistory, archaeology, ancient history, and anthropology. Not having any particular expertise in any of these fields, I can justly be accused of hubris. My excuse—which may not amount to a justification—for trespassing is threefold. First, there is the advantage of the naïveté I bring to the enterprise! Unlike a specialist immersed in the closely argued debates in their fields, I began with most of the same unexamined assumptions about the domestication of plants and animals, of sedentism, of early population centers, and of the first states that those of us who have not been paying much attention to new knowledge of the past two decades or so are apt to have taken for granted. In this respect, my ignorance and subsequent wide-eyed surprise at how much of what I thought I knew was wrong might be an advantage in writing for an audience that starts out with the same misconceptions. Second, I have made a conscientious effort, as a consumer, to understand the recent knowledge and debates in biology, epidemiology, archaeology, ancient history, demography, and environmental history that bear on these issues. And finally, I bring a background of two decades trying to understand the logic of modern state power (Seeing Like a State) as well as the practices of nonstate peoples, especially in Southeast Asia, who have, until recently, evaded absorption by states (The Art of Not Being Governed).
This is, therefore, a self-consciously derivative project. It creates no new knowledge of its own but aims, at its most ambitious, to “connect the dots” of existing knowledge in ways that may be illuminating or suggestive. The astonishing advances in our understanding over the past decades have served to radically revise or totally reverse what we thought we knew about the first “civilizations” in the Mesopotamian alluvium and elsewhere. We thought (most of us anyway) that the domestication of plants and animals led directly to sedentism and fixed-field agriculture. It turns out that sedentism long preceded evidence of plant and animal domestication and that both sedentism and domestication were in place at least four millennia before anything like agricultural villages appeared. Sedentism and the first appearance of towns were typically seen to be the effect of irrigation and of states. It turns out that both are, instead, usually the product of wetland abundance. We thought that sedentism and cultivation led directly to state formation, yet states pop up only long after fixed-field agriculture appears. Agriculture, it was assumed, was a great step forward in human well-being, nutrition, and leisure. Something like the opposite was initially the case. The state and early civilizations were often seen as attractive magnets, drawing people in by virtue of their luxury, culture, and opportunities. In fact, the early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of crowding. The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare. Finally, there is a strong case to be made that life outside the state—life as a “barbarian”—may often have been materially easier, freer, and healthier than life at least for nonelites inside civilization.
I am under no illusion that what I have written here will be the last word on domestication, on early state formation, or on the relation between early states and the people of their hinterlands. My goal is twofold: first, the more modest one of condensing the best knowledge we have of these matters and then suggesting what it implies for state formation and for both the human and ecological consequences of the state form. By itself, this is a tall order and I have tried to emulate the standard set for this genre by the likes of Charles Mann (1491) and Elizabeth Kolbert (The Sixth Extinction). My second aim, for which my native trackers should be held blameless, is to draw larger and more suggestive implications that I imagine would be “good to think with.” Thus I suggest that the broadest understanding of domestication as control over reproduction might be applied not only to fire, plants, and animals but also to slaves, state subjects, and women in the patriarchal family. I propose that the cereal grains have unique characteristics such that they would be, virtually everywhere, the major tax commodity essential to early state building. I believe that we may have grossly underestimated the importance of the (infectious) diseases of crowding in the demographic fragility of the early state. Unlike many historians, I wonder whether the frequent abandonment of early state centers might often have been a boon to the health and safety of their populations rather than a “dark age” signaling the collapse of a civilization. And finally, I ask whether those populations that remained outside state centers for millennia after the first states were established may not have remained there (or fled there) because they found conditions better. All of these implications I draw from my reading of the evidence are meant to be provocations. They are intended to stimulate further reflection and research. Where I have been stumped, I try to indicate so frankly. Where the evidence is thin and I stray into speculation, I try to signal that as well.
A word about geography and historical periods is in order. My focus is almost entirely on Mesopotamia, and in particular the “southern alluvium” south of contemporary Basra. The reason for this focus is that this area between the Tigris and Euphrates (Sumer) was the heartland of the first “pristine” states in the world—though it was not the location of the first sedentism, the first evidence of domesticated crops, or even the first proto-urban towns. The historical period I cover (aside from the deep history of domestication) encompasses the Ubaid Period, beginning roughly in 6,500 BCE, through the Old Babylonian Period, ending roughly in 1,600 BCE. The conventional subdivisions (some earlier dates are disputed) are:
Ubaid (6,500–3,800 BCE)
Jemdet Nasr (3,100–2,900)
Early Dynastic (2,900–2,335)
Ur III (2,112–2,004)
Old Babylonian (2,004–1,595 BCE)
By far most of the evidence I bring to bear concerns the period from 4,000 until 2,000 BCE, as it is both the key period of state formation and the focus of the bulk of the existing scholarship.
From time to time, I refer briefly to other early states, such as the Qin and Han dynasties of China, early Egypt, classical Greece, the Roman Republic and Empire, and even early Mayan civilization in the New World. The purpose of such excursions is to triangulate where the evidence from Mesopotamia is thin or disputed in order to make some educated guesses about patterns on the basis of comparisons. This is especially the case for the role of unfree labor in early states, the importance of disease in state collapse, the consequences of collapse, and, finally, the relationship between states and their “barbarians.”
In explaining the surprises that awaited me and, I imagine, await my readers as well, I have relied on a large number of trusted “native trackers” in disciplinary territories with which I am not intimately familiar. The question is not whether I am poaching; I mean to poach! The question is rather whether I have poached from the most experienced, careful, well-traveled, and trusted native trackers. I will name some of my most important guides here because I do wish to implicate them in this enterprise insofar as their wisdom has helped me find my way. At the top of the list are archaeologists and specialists on the Mesopotamian alluvium who have been exceptionally generous with their time and critical advice: Jennifer Pournelle, Norman Yoffee, David Wengrow, and Seth Richardson. Others whose work has inspired me are, in no particular order: John McNeill, Edward Melillo, Melinda Zeder, Hans Nissen, Les Groube, Guillermo Algaze, Ann Porter, Susan Pollock, Dorian Q. Fuller, Andrea Seri, Tate Paulette, Robert Mc. Adams, Michael Dietler, Gordon Hillman, Karl Jacoby, Helen Leach, Peter Perdue, Christopher Beckwith, Cyprian Broodbank, Owen Lattimore, Thomas Barfield, Ian Hodder, Richard Manning, K. Sivaramakrishnan, Edward Friedman, Douglas Storm, James Prosek, Aniket Aga, Sarah Osterhoudt, Padriac Kenney, Gardiner Bovingdon, Timothy Pechora, Stuart Schwartz, Anna Tsing, David Graeber, Magnus Fiskesjo, Victor Lieberman, Wang Haicheng, Helen Siu, Bennet Bronson, Alex Lichtenstein, Cathy Shufro, Jeffrey Isaac, and Adam T. Smith. I am particularly grateful to Joe Manning, who, I found, anticipated a good part of my argument about cereal grains and states and whose intellectual large-spiritedness extended to allowing me to poach his title, Against the Grain, as the first element of my own.
Though not a little intimidated at the prospect, I tried out my arguments before audiences of archaeologists and specialists in ancient history. I want to thank them for their forbearance and helpful criticism. One of the first audiences on which I inflicted early revisions included many of my ex-colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, where I gave the Hilldale Lecture in 2013. I want also to thank Clifford Ando and his colleagues for inviting me to a conference on “Infrastructural and Despotic Power in Ancient States” at the University of Chicago in 2014, and David Wengrow and Sue Hamilton for the opportunity to give the Gordon Childe Lecture at the Institute of Archaeology, London, in 2016. Portions of my argument have been presented (and dissected!) at the University of Utah (the O. Meredith Wilson Lecture), the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (Centennial Lecture), Indiana University (Patten Lectures), the University of Connecticut, Northwestern University, the University of Frankfurt am Main, the Free University in Berlin, Columbia University’s Legal Theory Workshop, and Aarhus University, which also afforded me the luxury of a paid leave during further researching and writing. I am especially grateful to my Danish colleagues Nils Bubandt, Mikael Gravers, Christian Lund, Niels Brimnes, Preben Kaarlsholm, and Bodil Frederickson for their intellectual generosity and for insights that contributed to my further education.
I don’t believe anyone, anywhere ever had a more valuable and intellectually ferocious research assistant than I had in Annikki Herranan, now launched in her career as an anthropologist. Annikki laid out, week after week, an intellectual “tasting menu” of sumptuous proportions with an infallible guide to the juiciest morsels. Faizah Zakariah tracked down the permissions for the images found here, and Bill Nelson skillfully crafted the maps, charts, and “histograms” meant to help orient the reader. Finally, my Yale University Press editor, Jean Thomson Black, explains my loyalty, and that of many other authors, to the Press; she is the standard of quality, attention, and efficiency we all wish were not so rare. When it came to making sure that the final manuscript was as free of error, infelicities, and contradictions as it could possibly be, the “enforcer” was Dan Heaton. His insistence on perfection was made enjoyable by his high spirits and humor. Readers should know that everything was done to ensure that the remaining faults are irredeemably my own.
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